(KK Surendran, who taught at a local teachers’ training institute in Wayanad, was arrested and brutally assaulted by the police for supporting the Muthanga tribal agitation. The agitation itself was suppressed using force that resulted in the deaths of a tribal and a police constable. Surendran recalls the two-decade old agitation and its aftermath. As told to KA Shaji.)
Monday, 20 February, marks two decades since my arrest and the rupturing of my eardrum beyond repair due to torture in police custody.
I was then a faculty member with the District Institute of Education and Training (DIET), functioning under the Kerala government, at Sulthan Bathery in Wayanad.
As a local Dalit who was himself brought up in adverse circumstances, I was always sympathetic to the tribal community around me, whose land was alienated over the years at the hands of the powerful settler community. As a result, their livelihood was in peril.
As a concerned citizen with a critical approach to whatever developments were taking place around me, I have always upheld the cause of Wayanad tribals.
When a sizeable segment of the landless tribals in Wayanad rallied under the banner of the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha (AGMS) — and its firebrand leaders CK Janu and M Geethanandan — to occupy a portion of the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary two decades ago, I spoke about the need for a negotiated settlement to the agitation.
I supported the cause of the agitating tribals on finding that their demands were genuine. I wanted to ensure the tribals had sufficient land and livelihood.
Other than that, I was not involved in the unparalleled agitation that irked the state’s then AK Antony-led UDF government.
What happened that day
On 20 February, 2003, a day after the Muthanga agitation was suppressed ruthlessly using brutal police force, I was arrested from my office on the false allegation that I abetted the agitating tribals in attacking the police officers deputed by the Antony government to evict them.
The day before my arrest had witnessed large-scale violence in Muthanga, in which poor tribals were subjected to large-scale police excesses. A tribal elder and a police constable were killed in the police action that occurred inside the Muthanga forests.
From the moment I was thrown into the van, the police began attacking me brutally, saying I was responsible for the killing of the policeman. According to them, the killing was done by criminal elements among the tribals on the directions from outside.
At the Sulthan Bathery police station, located hardly 10 km from my residence, the cops subjected me to third-degree custodial torture. They wanted to know about the funds and support the agitating tribals received from outside.
They portrayed me as an ultra-left radical who had organised the tribals against the government. I told them it was a false notion. But there was nobody to believe me.
I spent 13 days in Kannur central jail, writhing in pain. After I got bail, I spent two weeks in a hospital getting my battered body — including a damaged eardrum — treated.
I lost my job temporarily, but regained it later.
Soon, the investigation into the case was taken over by the CBI. The central agency absolved me of all charges in their report filed before the court. It found the allegations were false.
The case in court
I slowly rebuilt my life, with the ruptured eardrum as a reminder of the atrocity I suffered.
In 2004, I filed a case in the local court seeking ₹15 lakh as compensation from the state government and seven police officers who tortured me in custody on false charges.
The judicial process in the case took over 16 years to conclude.
The sub-court in Wayanad found in 2021 that I was falsely implicated in the case and did nothing against the state or government. It ordered a compensation of ₹5 lakh for the custodial torture and directed the government to recover the amount from the cops who tortured me.
By that time, political equations in Kerala had changed repeatedly. Antony had left state politics long ago. The Congress-led UDF government had been replaced by a Left government led by Pinarayi Vijayan, who had used the Muthanga police crackdown on tribals as a political tool to win power and position.
I hoped the Left government would sanction me the humble ₹5 lakh with or without recovery from the involved police officers.
But the Pinarayi Vijayan government, which shed crocodile tears on the land rights of tribals in the state but did nothing in practice to address the issue, decided to go in appeal against the compensation awarded to me.
It felt the compensation would erode the self-confidence of the police force in the state.
When an appeals court summarily rejected the demand, the government approached the Kerala High Court, and now its petition is pending before it.
No repentence for action against Wayanad tribals
For the government and the ruling Left parties, there is no repentance for the police brutality on people of independent stature on imagined charges. They are least concerned about the human rights violations involved.
On another level, the so-called Leftists in Kerala have forgotten the tribal cause in the state.
Justice still eludes the Muthanga agitators. Tribal land rights continue to be an ignored. The poor and marginalised continue to be discriminated against.
The Muthanga agitation
Tribals in Kerala are quietly observing 20 years of the Muthanga agitation.
The police firing was the culmination of a 49-day-long land struggle by several homeless tribal families who occupied a portion of the wildlife sanctuary in Muthanga by building temporary thatched huts.
The agitators comprised the Paniyar, Adiyar, Kattunaikas, and the Oorallies, the extremely backward tribal communities of Kerala.
The agitation was held under the leadership of iconic Adiya tribal woman, CK Janu, who evolved from among the Wayanad tribals and transformed into the powerful voice of the tribal community across the state.
This agitation was an extension of the 2001 land agitation in which Janu and fellow tribals erected huts before the state secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram.
Litany of false promises to Wayanad tribals
As the struggle was held in Thiruvananthapuram, the Antony government held discussions with the agitators and an agreement was arrived at: One to five acres of cultivable land would be allocated to each landless tribal family.
I still remember a newspaper photograph in which a triumphant Antony played the drum along with the agitating tribals after they reached a truce.
However, subsequent developments proved that the chief minister was attempting to hoodwink the landless tribals of the state. Janu and other leaders of the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha had great faith in the chief minister, who then had an image of idealism and a blemishless public life.
However, not even one piece of land was distributed by the end of that year. All the assurances in the agreement remained confined to files at the state secretariat. Neither the chief minister nor the rest of the political leadership showed any inclination to fulfill their promises.
Officials also feigned ignorance about such an agreement.
It was in this context that the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha occupied the forest land in Muthanga and erected huts.
No effort to find a solution
I still believe the agitation was necessitated by the total indifference of the government to the tribal cause. Though the then minister for welfare of the backward and scheduled communities MA Kuttappan and agriculture minister KR Gowri sympathised with the agitators, they refrained from directly intervening in the matter.
In facilitating the brutal suppression of the agitation, the government adopted an undemocratic approach against the agitators. Before ordering the forced and violent eviction, only the Forest Department had held some namesake conciliatory meetings with the agitators.
It was not an issue to be solved exclusively by the Forest Department. The department needed to hand over portions of a wildlife sanctuary to the tribals. Prevailing laws did not allow it.
Besides cultivable land, the Maha Sabha demanded the implementation of the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act of 1996. They wanted the Panchayati Raj Act to be extended to allow tribal autonomy and administration in their occupied areas.
This legally permitted autonomy, awarded by the Indian Parliament, was misinterpreted by the state government and vested interests with the help of mainstream media. They misrepresented the Maha Sabha’s demand for self-rule and autonomy as part of a larger Maoist agenda to thwart democracy in the country.
Ignoring a constitutionally guaranteed right of the tribals, they said the Maha Sabha was planning to constitute autonomous regions using Maoist guerilla methods.
At that time, Parliament had not passed the Forest Rights Act. And as a result, allocating reserve forest land to landless tribals was impossible.
AK Antony’s role
Instead of approaching the agitation in a democratic manner and finding an agreeable solution, the Antony government manipulated facts and misinterpreted situations to chase away and gun down the agitating tribals.
The upper caste migrant occupants of Wayanad, their environmentalists, and their politicians had played second fiddle to them.
When the Gujarat carnage occurred in 2002, the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi was accused of giving a free hand to Hindutva forces to let loose an atmosphere of terror on minorities. Even now, that allegation is haunting Modi.
An almost similar situation exists in the case of AK Antony as far as the Muthanga agitation is concerned.
Antony, who later emerged as the top congress leader and Union minister, was inactive during the Muthanga agitation. He failed to perform his duty and gave a free hand to the police to crack down on the hapless landless tribals.
The police action
The then Director General of Police, KJ Joseph, who Antony used to call ‘Joseph Sir’, almost acted like a home minister and was infamous for his dictatorial nature. He got a free hand in cracking down on the tribals.
Another minister who worsened the situation at that time is today the KPCC president, K Sudhakaran, He then held the forest portfolio.
Instead of acting like a minister of a democratically elected government, Sudhakaran and his supporters — who occupied forest inspection bungalows of Wayanad at that time — played a significant role in ensuring the brutal police crack down on the agitators.
Statements made by Sudhakaran before and after the Muthanga incident, in fact, amounted to threats and intimidation targeting the agitating tribals. These statements also energised anti-tribal forces, mainly the settlers and the police.
The Antony government ignored the recommendations of the National Human Rights Commission and the SC/ST Commission for an investigation into the police atrocities. The government ordered a CBI investigation targeting only the agitating tribals.
Left failed the tribals
We hoped initially for a reinvestigation when the Left parties came to power. They did nothing.
Based on my experience, politicians across the spectrum in Kerala are anti-tribal. The only politician who acted significantly for us, the Muthanga victims, was VS Achuthanandan, the former chief minister and CPI(M) leader.
The police excesses in Muthanga have still not been properly investigated. Justice still eludes the victims.